Daniel Skobla
Regional Problems - Real or Artificial?
('New' Nationalism in the Balkans)


1) Prejudice and stereotypes are stemming out from our need to simplified complexity of the world we are encompassed. In order to cope with the manifold reality, to cope with new facts and events we encounter in everyday life, we are putting them into categories. This enables us more easy perception and orientation in difficult reality. Western European understanding of the Balkans entails such as prejudiced and stereotyping connotations. As Todorova states, the notion of the ‘balkanization’ "had become a synonym for a reversion to the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian…[and] …what has been emphasized about the Balkans is that its inhabitants do not care to conform to the standards of behavior devised as normative by and for the civilized world" (Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 1997). The stereotypes about the Balkans are relatively new. They have their origins in the early of 19th century and are connected with socio-cultural changes in Western Europe, with processes of industrialization and modern policies after napoleonic wars. The West embarking on the process of rapid social change, transforming in a high speed from pre-modern into modern era commenced on defining an obsolete political, economic and social systems in the Balkans as the ‘other’ of Europe. Thus, like it or not, speaking from the ‘eurocentric’ point of view there is a definite sociological base for categorizations and generalizations, which are the core of rather negative stereotypes about the Balkans.

2) Admitting that for the last several centuries there has been social, cultural and economic division between the Balkans and the West we should think about what is the source of this split. Firstly, from sociological-historical point of view, the economic backwardness of the Balkans and Eastern Europe lies in different agrarian systems than were those of the West. Modern organization of rural sector, individual freedom, private ownership of land in pre-18th century Western Europe enabled developing of modern and effective agriculture, based on mechanization, technical innovations and intensification of production. For example in the Danish kingdom a profound land reform where up to 60 percent of the peasants became landowners took place as early as in 1780s! Thus, western societies were dominated by mechanization and proto-market mechanism even long before the industrial revolution. Because these societies continually made and put into practice technical and organizational innovations, they continually changed employment of material and human resources. The occupational structures altered significantly so the following of family profession was not expected and economic diversification and social mobility was on the progress. On the other side of the demarcation line, in the East of Europe and in the Balkans rigid social and economic systems frozen a social change. The tyranny of rulers and kings, exploitation of low classes, illiteracy, inflexible organization of rural space and serfdom, were the sources of economic stagnation. The social life of eastern prevailingly peasant societies consisted mostly of highly isolated communities based on ritualistic customs, socially oriented religions and magical folk-cults. The occupational training was left to families or guilds, which made hard or almost impossible kind of vertical social mobilization.

3) The division between the West on the one side and Eastern Europe and the Balkans on the another side, from sociological perspective, has the analogy in the division between pre-modern and modern societies. The economic, political and social problems connected with the Balkans are often seen to lie (and I tend to agree) in the unfinished or interrupted process of modernization. The Balkans in 19th century was not simply industrialized in the way the West was and since then it has been lacking behind in many socio-economic characteristics. And now, I am slowly approaching the connection between a social change and nationalism. In, for example, Ernst Gellner’s thesis (Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 1983) economic change requires cultural homogeneity and the pre-modern societies were too much internally culturally diverse. The early modern states (since 18th century onwards), in order to make economic change and industrialization feasible, strive for culturally homogeneous societies and this strive was the basis of the nationalism. Thus, it is important to see that this perspective understands nationalism in rather functional terms and in fact contends that there can be no economic development without nationalism – without that kind of nationalism which made western societies to be homogeneous nation-states in the 19th and in beginning of 20th century. The reasoning goes as followed: in order to transform pre-modern agrarian society into industrialized one, elementary literacy is required. There is no other institution that can as much effectively provide literacy as state. Thus, states became promoters and protectors of official ‘high’ culture. This official culture needed an entire educational system with universities in order to be sustained. The educational system, schools and universities are reciprocally generating one culture and language contributing to homogenization of the state. Nationalism is thus the demand that each state contains only one nation and one national culture. Nationalism is therefore the policy of state which is oriented towards circulation of only ‘one and officially chosen’ language, and towards one sometimes only reshaped yet sometimes even invented ‘national’ history. This is done by suppressing local dialects and assimilating, at best case, or eradicating, at worse case, ethnic minorities living on the politically defined territory. Nationalism is according to this perspective, strive for cultural homogeneity. The western societies succeeded in general to build homogeneous culture based on unified educational system, which was protected by the state. However, the Ottoman Empire, which somehow granted autonomy to minority groups and where the different parts of the same society were almost unintelligible to each other, was alone never trying to enforce a common state culture. The Balkan nationalism, thus, did not begin as the strife of the state for ethnic and cultural homogeneity in order to provide favorable condition for the spread of industrialization. And now I come to the weakest point of presented model, Gellnerian model of nationalism: it did not explain the rise and dissemination of nationalism in non-industrialized world where no Protestant like capitalism was about to take place. My explanation about the origins of eastern nationalism incorporates of another intellectual concept into Gellner’s model; I will do that with a little help from one noted Oxfordian professor. John Plamenatz, Montenegrin living in Britain for all of his life wrote rather boring books on the history of political though. Yet, once he has written a beautiful essay on nationalism where he distinguished between two types of nationalisms: eastern and western. (Plamenatz, Two types of nationalism, 1974). And he, in my view, caught the point: Eastern, the Slavic and Balkanian nationalism was imitative nationalism. It started as the response of the periphery to the events happening in the center - in the developed industrial West. Eastern nationalism was apt to be illiberal and hostile to its Western European models. This nationalism was the reaction of the eastern people who felt culturally disadvantaged and had a feeling of weakness and insecurity.

4) Let me recap what I have claimed so far: The eastern backwardness has its historical roots in rigid agrarian systems of 16th and 17th centuries that were sustained by specific socio-cultural conditions. The same socio-cultural factors brought about that industrialization and social change did not successfully took the place in 19th century. State-building nationalism of 19th century that was efficient vehicle of cultural homogeneity in the West did not succeeded to be accomplished in the Balkans. Unfinished process of modernization and ineffective nation building nationalism brought about that the region remained culturally very diversified and heterogeneous until nowadays.

5) Continuing in the framework of presented thesis; I see the basic problems of the Balkans lies nowadays, in the incongruence between ‘polity’ and culture. That means that politically defined borders of contemporary states simply do not overlapped with cultural (ethnic, linguistic etc.) borders as they do (mostly) in the West. Diversity and heterogeneity within particular political entities is defined as ‘pathological’ condition and thus, more to the detriment than the benefit of the state. This attitudes results nowadays in the drive for homogenization of states territories, in a drive for a new nationalism taking place. It is a new nation-building nationalism, ‘nationalizing nationalism’, (Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed, 1996) which represents a massive reorganization of political space along national lines. It is a distinctive and dynamic form of nationalism, which is only at first sight based on the similar logic as his grand-grand-father nation-building nationalism of 19th century. On contrary of its predecessors, the new nationalism is based not on integration but on exclusion. It conceives culture and ethnicity as something ascribed and unchangeable. It is illiberal and extraordinarily dangerous and explosive nationalism. It is nationalism in the form of political action based on lament that the identity and interests of majority ‘nation’ are not properly realized in political institutionsof the state, practises or policies. It is nationalism based on the ideas that core nation legitimately ‘owns’ the state and that a specific political and sometimes military action is needed to promote the language, culture, and economic welfare. In this light I see that the regional Balkan problems are not by any means artificial but they are as much real as they can be.


Wroc³aw, 10.07.2000